The Philosophy of Thomas Paine by Thomas Edison
by Thomas Alva Edison
June 7, 1925
Tom Paine has almost no influence on present-day thinking in the United States because he is unknown to the average citizen. Perhaps I might say right here that this is a national loss and a deplorable lack of understanding concerning the man who first proposed and first wrote those impressive words, ‘the United States of America.’ But it is hardly strange. Paine’s teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind.
We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the Weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen. Washington himself appreciated Paine at his true worth. Franklin knew him for a great patriot and clear thinker. He was a friend and confidant of Jefferson, and the two must often have debated the academic and practical phases of liberty.
I consider Paine our greatest political thinker. As we have not advanced, and perhaps never shall advance, beyond the Declaration and Constitution, so Paine has had no successors who extended his principles. Although the present generation knows little of Paine’s writings, and although he has almost no influence upon contemporary thought, Americans of the future will justly appraise his work. I am certain of it. Truth is governed by natural laws and cannot be denied. Paine spoke truth with a peculiarly clear and forceful ring. Therefore time must balance the scales. The Declaration and the Constitution expressed in form Paine’s theory of political rights. He worked in Philadelphia at the time that the first document was written, and occupied a position of intimate contact with the nation’s leaders when they framed the Constitution.
Certainly we may believe that Washington had a considerable voice in the Constitution. We know that Jefferson had much to do with the document. Franklin also had a hand and probably was responsible in even larger measure for the Declaration. But all of these men had communed with Paine. Their views were intimately understood and closely correlated. There is no doubt whatever that the two great documents of American liberty reflect the philosophy of Paine.
We may look in other directions, where the trace is plainer, easier definitely to establish, for evidences of his influence. Paine, you know, came over to the Colonies after meeting Franklin in London. He had encountered numerous misfortunes, and Franklin gave him letters to friends back home which resulted in his becoming editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine in January of 1775. It is highly interesting that circumstance should have brought him to America at that time and placed him in such a position. Paine had little education, in the school sense of the term, but he had read avidly and written a great deal before meeting Franklin. Once placed at the editor’s desk of a new American periodical, he found time and opportunity exactly suited to his spirit and his genius.
The Pennsylvania Magazine began to bristle – so much so that its owner, and the cooler heads of Philadelphia, were worried by Paine’s writings. Looking back to those times we cannot, without much reading, clearly gauge the sentiment of the Colonies. Perhaps the larger number of responsible men still hoped for peace with England. They did not even venture to express the matter that way. Few men, indeed, had thought in terms of war. Then Paine wrote ‘Common Sense,’ an anonymous tract which immediately stirred the fires of liberty. It flashed from hand to hand throughout the Colonies. One copy reached the New York Assembly, in session at Albany, and a night meeting was voted to answer this unknown writer with his clarion call to liberty. The Assembly met, but could find no suitable answer. Tom Paine had inscribed a document which never has been answered adversely, and never can be, so long as man esteems his priceless possession.
In ‘Common Sense’ Paine flared forth with a document so powerful that the Revolution became inevitable. Washington recognized the difference, and in his calm way said that matters never could be the same again. It must be remembered that ‘Common Sense’ preceded the declaration and affirmed the very principles that went into the national doctrine of liberty. But that affirmation was made with more vigor, more of the fire of the patriot and was exactly suited to the hour. It is probable that we should have had the Revolution without Tom Paine. Certainly it could not be forestalled, once he had spoken.
I have always been interested in this man. My father had a set of Tom Paine’s books on the shelf at home. I must have opened the covers about the time I was 13. And I can still remember the flash of enlightenment which shone from his pages. It was a revelation, indeed, to encounter his views on political and religious matters, so different from the views of many people around us. Of course I did not understand him very well, but his sincerity and ardor made an impression upon me that nothing has ever served to lessen.
I have heard it said that Paine borrowed from Montesquieu and Rousseau. Maybe he had read them both and learned something from each. I do not know. But I doubt that Paine ever borrowed a line from any man. Perhaps he gained strength from the fact that the springs of his wisdom lay within himself, and he spoke so clearly because the man’s spirit yearned to reach other spirits.
Many a person who could not comprehend Rousseau, and would be puzzled by Montesquieu, could understand Paine as an open book. He wrote with a clarity, a sharpness of outline and exactness of speech that even a schoolboy should be able to grasp. There is nothing false, little that is subtle, and an impressive lack of the negative in Paine. He literally cried to his reader for a comprehending hour, and then filled that hour with such sagacious reasoning as we find surpassed nowhere else in American letters – seldom in any school of writing.
Paine would have been the last to look upon himself as a man of letters. Liberty was the dear companion of his heart; truth in all things his object. Yet he has left us such stirring lines as those of ‘The Crisis,’ where he says: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls…. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered!’ Even an unappreciative posterity knows that line, but we, perhaps, remember him best for his declaration: ‘The world is my country; to do good my religion.’
Again we see the spontaneous genius at work in “The Rights of Man,” and that genius busy at his favorite task – liberty. Written hurriedly and in the heat of controversy, “The Rights of Man” yet compares favorably with classical models, and in some places rises to vaulting heights. Its appearance outmatched events attending Burke’s effort in his “Reflections.”
Instantly the English public caught hold of this new contribution. It was more than a defense of liberty; it was a world declaration of what Paine had declared before in the Colonies. His reasoning was so cogent, his command of the subject so broad, that his legion of enemies found it hard to answer him. “Tom Paine is quite right,” said Pitt, the Prime Minister, “but if I were to encourage his views we should have a bloody revolution.” Here we see the progressive quality of Paine’s genius at its best. “The Rights of Man” amplified and reasserted what already had been said in “Common Sense,” with now a greater force and the power of a maturing mind. Just when Paine was at the height of his renown, an indictment for treason confronted him. About the same time he was elected a member of the Revolutionary Assembly and escaped to France.
So little did he know of the French tongue that addresses to his constituents had to be translated by an interpreter. But he sat in the assembly. Shrinking from the guillotine, he encountered Robespierre’s enmity, and presently found himself in prison, facing that dread instrument.
But his imprisonment was fertile. Already he had written the first part of “The Age of Reason” and now turned his time to the latter part. Presently his second escape cheated Robespierre of vengeance, and in the course of events “The Age of Reason” appeared. Instantly it became a source of contention which still endures. Paine returned to the United States a little broken, and went to live at his home in New Rochelle – a public gift. Many of his old companions in the struggle for liberty avoided him, and he was publicly condemned by the unthinking.
Paine suffered then, as now he suffers not so much because of what he wrote as from the misinterpretations of others. He has been called an atheist, but atheist he was not. Paine believed in a supreme intelligence, as representing the idea which other men often express by the name of deity. His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles taught by established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds – or on persons devoted to them – have served to darken his memory, casting a shadow across the closing years of his life.
When Theodore Roosevelt termed Tom Paine a dirty little atheist he surely spoke from lack of understanding. It was a stricture, an inaccurate charge of the sort that has dimmed the greatness of this eminent American. But the true measure of his stature will yet be appreciated. The torch which he handed on will not be extinguished. If Paine had ceased his writings with “The Rights of Man” he would have been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding figures of the Revolution. But “The Age of Reason” cost him glory at the hands of his countrymen – a greater loss to them than to Tom Paine.
I was always interested in Paine the inventor. He conceived and designed the iron bridge and the hollow candle; the principle of the modern central draught burner. The man had a sort of universal genius. He was interested in a diversity of things; but his special creed, his first thought, was liberty.
Traducers have said that he spent his last days drinking in pothouses. They have pictured him as a wicked old man coming to a sorry end. But I am persuaded that Paine must have looked with magnanimity and sorrow on the attacks of his countrymen. That those attacks have continued down to our day, with scarcely any abatement, is an indication of how strong prejudice, when once aroused, may become. It has been a custom in some quarters to hold up Paine as an example of everything bad. The memory of Tom Paine will outlive all this. No man who helped to lay the foundations of our liberty – who stepped forth as the champion of so difficult a cause – can be permanently obscured by such attacks. Tom Paine should be read by his countrymen. I commend his fame to their hands.
This essay may be found in the book “The Diary and Sundry Observations” edited by Dagobert D. Runes (1948).